A woman sells tickets for the Thai national lottery in Bangkok on Sept. 15. Developing Asia, stretching from the Cook Islands in the Pacific to Kazakhstan in Central Asia, is expected to contract in 2020 for the first time in nearly six decades, throwing tens of millions of people into poverty. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)
Millions of Thais have been hit hard by the severe economic downturn in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, but groups of local Christians have been coming to the aid of many of them.
Christians have been helping their neediest fellow citizens in various ways over the past few months as Thailand’s economy has taken a nosedive, driving millions of disadvantaged locals further into poverty.
In the northern city of Chiang Mai, which has a large Christian population, teams of Catholics and Protestants have been distributing food packages and toiletries in low-income areas of town.
Some Christians have also been reaching out to Buddhists by telling them about the message of the Gospels and the ministry of Jesus in helping the poor and downtrodden. They have been able to do so unimpeded in a country famed for its tolerance of various faiths whose practitioners often live peacefully side by side in diverse communities in Bangkok and other urban hubs around Thailand.
“There is freedom to share the Gospel, particularly up in Chiang Mai, [which is] a kind of a hub for ministries from that region,” said Helen Williams, who works with World Missionary Press, which distributes booklets on Christian scriptures and other printed materials worldwide.
“They have a major printing ministry business, so they print a lot of Christian literature as well as using our literature. But reaching the Buddhist people is a challenge in and of itself.”
Although Christianity was introduced to Thailand by Portuguese missionaries in the early 16th century, the religion has had relatively little traction with Thais, the vast majority of whom are Buddhists.
Christians, who comprise both Catholics and Protestants, account for slightly more than 1 percent of the country’s population of 69 million and are outnumbered by Muslims, who make up more than 4 percent of Thailand’s population as its largest religious minority and are concentrated in the southern region.
Christian missionaries, most of whom were Catholics, were allowed to build churches in Bangkok and elsewhere over the centuries, yet many of them failed to win many converts over to their faith except among ethnic minority animists inhabiting the remote mountainous northern region where Chiang Mai is located.
Ethnic Thai Buddhists have been less receptive to the message of Christianity, partly because of their attachment to Buddhism and partly because of a certain social stigma attached to becoming a Christian. Thais who convert to Christianity are often seen as having abandoned their Thai ways, which serves as a major disincentive to many locals to embrace a religion seen as a foreign and so “un-Thai” faith, experts say.
“To be Thai is to be Buddhist, and those who turn to Christ are perceived as leaving the ancestral ways and adopting foreign ways. While actual violence is rare, there is unrelenting pressure on those who embrace the Christian faith to return to the fold,” explains William Kenneth Nelson, a long-term Christian resident of Thailand.
Yet that attitude has not daunted several Catholic missions, which have largely refrained from proselytizing to Buddhists and instead embraced the core message of their faith by helping the poor regardless of their religious affiliations.
In Klong Toey, a shantytown-style neighborhood in Bangkok where poverty is rife, the Mercy Center, a Catholic charity, has for the past half century been providing schooling for disadvantaged children, operating orphanages for abandoned youngsters, and running various projects for impoverished locals, especially single mothers and older women.
Built on a site where a Buddhist temple once stood, the Mercy Center has been run since its inception in 1972 by its founders — Father Joseph Maier, a Redemptorist priest from the United States, and Sister Maria Chantavarodom, a Thai nun who belongs to the Daughters of the Queenship of Mary Immaculate order.
The priest and the nun started with a shack they turned into a small school for local children whose parents could not afford to send their offspring to government-run schools or did not bother about schooling their children. Over the years Father Joe (as Maier is affectionately known) and Sister Maria have created a thriving charity that has helped tens of thousands of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians in a variety of ways.
Despite the ravages of Covid-19 on Thailand’s economy, the Mercy Center has not scaled down its operations. Earlier this month hundreds of children returned to the Catholic charity’s kindergartens to resume their studies with antiviral measures in place.
“The kids are fine. Everyone is healthy. True, they wear masks (most of the time), wash their hands proper, and are as cheerful and happy as five- and six-year-olds can be,” the Mercy Center says. “We strive for social distancing — and achieve it … somewhat … as much as can be expected at kindergarten level.”
Individual Catholics, too, have been doing their best to help their neediest fellow Thais.
Chantel Vachirakul, who runs a small business in Bangkok, has been buying canned food, toiletries and other necessaries at a convenient store and placing them at a glass-walled cabinet placed on a street corner in a central area of Bangkok so that people without money can help themselves to whatever they need.
“Our faith teaches us to help the poor, so I’m doing what I can,” the Catholic woman says.